We Were Merely Freshmen: Classmates Recall Mitt Romney’s Year at Stanford

By Kiera Feldman

One Friday in the spring of 1966, Mitt Romney, then a freshman at Stanford University, skipped the discussion section of his Western Civilization survey class. A sit-in against the Vietnam War was underway inside President Wallace Sterling's office. Outside, Mitt Romney protested against the protestors. Romney's anti-anti-war camp was a clean-cut crew dressed in khakis, button-ups, and blazers. They held signs that read "oppose anarchy" and "support President Sterling." In the evening, after Romney had left, his compatriots showed their true colors. Here’s how one of the anti-war protestors—the ones being protested by Romney and co.— remembers it:

When we were bedding down for the night in the President's office, the counter-demonstrators behaved less politely than they did in the daytime. Knowing full well that there were a good number of blacks and other minorities inside, they swarmed around pretending to be drunk and kept singing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" with obscene lyrics. Instead of the words "We shall overcome," they sang, "We shall come all over." Later on we heard the clippity-clop of a horse on the stone pavement of the Quad, and looked out to see a frat boy riding a horse, as if to declare that the Ku Klux Klan would rise again.

That's the team with which the young Mitt Romney aligned himself. At least until his father, Michigan Governor George Romney, formerly a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War, reconsidered his position and declared he'd "had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." Then, 23-year-old Mitt Romney fell in step, saying, “If it wasn’t a political blunder to move into Vietnam, I don’t know what is.”

Young Romney’s malleable position on the war didn’t firm up as he got older. In 1994, Romney stated that he had had no interest in serving in the military as a young man. Yet in 2007, he reminisced, “I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and representing our country there.” Consistency in his political positions has never been a concern for candidate Romney.

One thing Mitt has been consistent about is his faith. According to a few of his classmates that VICE caught up with, college-Romney was an assured and steadfast Mormon. After his freshman year at Stanford (1965-1966), Mitt left for a two-year stint as a missionary in France, after which he finished out college at Brigham Young University. Lynn Miller Cohagan was in the same Western Civ. section as Mitt when they were both freshman.

VICE: What do you remember about Mitt Romney from Stanford?
Lynn Miller Cohagan: While the rest of us were exploring new ideas, Mitt Romney was just sort of promoting his father’s Republicanism and also very much promoting Mormonism. Maybe not during class, but if you talked to him after class, he was very much about Mormonism. We were freshman, we were all green, and we were all trying to figure it out. I don’t think that anybody thought they had the answers except maybe Mitt. He always had a point of view, and it was always the same. He was his father’s son.

So you didn’t quite get the impression that Mitt was wrestling with the Vietnam War?
No, he pretty much had decided about many things in life. But the Mormonism was probably at the top of his list.

Do you see any echoes of the Romney you knew at Stanford in candidate Romney of today?
Oh sure. He’s got a kind of moral certainty that has not changed. He seems to be very sure of himself in all things.

It’s interesting though. Because it only took a few years: Once his father changed his position on the Vietnam War, then Mitt also changed a well.
Mmhmm. That wouldn’t surprise me.

How come?
Well, I felt like he inherited a lot of his ideas from his father and from the church. Just very much a strong conviction that he was on the right path with Mormonism and there was no other path.

So. The Enlightenment. Mitt Romney. Pro or con?
Well. He would say he was enlightened, and we weren’t.

Did he ever ask to copy your homework?
No.

Did everyone think he was obnoxious in the seminar?
I don’t know that the word would be obnoxious, just that he was very opinionated. Everyone knew of his father and everyone knew he was conservative. And everyone knew Mitt was the same way. He wasn’t this arrogant blowhard type. He wasn’t loud, and he didn’t try to dominate the class at all. He didn’t take people on. But if you saw him before or after class, he would be very insistent about his opinion. But he wasn’t unbearable. It’s just that he didn’t seem like the rest of us. He wasn’t curious.

Were you surprised when he left at the end of the year?
I was. I was, a little bit.

There’s been conjecture that he was going on his mission in order to dodge the draft?
I wouldn’t have guessed. I would have guessed that he wanted to be on the mission. He had one foot out the mission door already.

***

Among his dormmates in Rinconada Hall at Stanford, young Mitt Romney was an exception: His belief system did not seem to grow or change a bit over the course of freshman year. Resident Adviser David Harris, a campus radical who went on to become student body president, marry Joan Baez, and go to jail for resisting the draft, was instrumental in introducing many students to new experiences, be they political, musical, or pharmaceutical. “If anybody could turn you, it was [Harris],” one Rinconada dormmate told the New York Times. “But Mitt resisted his blandishments.”

At Stanford, Mitt behaved exactly as he did during prep school back in Michigan: He pulled pranks on classmates while dressed in a cop uniform. Rinconada dormmate Bruce Borgerson arrived at Stanford as a budding young conservative and was originally drawn to Mitt, the son of a prominent Republican governor. But the attraction was fleeting. Before long, when new issues of National Review arrived in the mail, Borgerson would throw them in the trash.

VICE: Did you think Mitt Romney would come this far politically?
Bruce Borgerson: Looking back on it, I never would have thought that Romney would make a serious run for the presidency. You know, a governor like his dad—maybe, if you’d have asked me. But frankly, by the end of my freshman year, our resident adviser David Harris was the man. Romney was irrelevant.

What made David Harris the man?

 

David Harris was hanging out with Joan Baez, who'd been romantically linked to Bob Dylan, who was one notch above God for me at the time. Mitt was just this guy that ran around in a cop uniform. I just remember thinking at the time, Oh, you know, Mitt is putting on a big deal. Playing the bigshot in his cop uniform. I was not impressed. That was just Mitt doing his thing. In 1974, only eight years down the road, I started writing a retrospective journal, jotting down memories of my Stanford years. From fall 1965: “Big Game bonfire, Romney kid asshole playing cop.”

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Another freshman year dormmate of Mitt Romney's had a more glowing recollection of the presidential candidate as a young man. Here's Mike Milburn in conversation with VICE:

VICE: What did you think of Mitt Romney at Stanford?
Mike Millburn: I really believe he had a much greater sense of direction than most of the kids in the Rinconada dorm. He was more mature. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke. He wasn’t one of the party hardy characters.

Do you wish you’d known him better?
Definitely. But I was busy in my own freshman year trying to find myself as well. When I returned at Christmas my parents didn’t know me. My background was conservative, and I clearly became a rebel.

Where were you at the end of college, in terms of your feelings about the Vietnam War?
I believe there was a sit-in at the president’s office. I went down and voiced my concern about what they were doing. I felt they weren’t being supportive of the country. So I really did come full circle. I wish I’d spent more time with Mitt Romney, because look what he’s accomplished. I’m blown away by the fellow. Anybody who can go to Harvard Law and get his MBA at the same time? Who do you know that’s done that?

No one.
The guy obviously has tremendous capacity. I think he understands capitalism.


 
Want more young Mitt? Read Mitt Romney: Safety Patrol Captain

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